“Children begin by loving their parents; then they
judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”
My once tall, athletic, commanding father hunched over a walker, his prosthetic leg clumping along awkwardly. My three small dogs dodged and scattered as he practically ran them over on his way to the guest room in my and my husband’s home, their innocent eyes looking up at me as if to say, “Who is this reckless interloper?” He wasn’t one to patiently wait for the little guys to move. “Life is difficult, especially for a one-legged basketball player,” he said, with a smile. My father was not without a certain amount of charm and wit.
He arrived at our home on April 16, 2020, near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when lockdown became mandatory, and he stayed for eight weeks. He had been living in his trailer in an RV park about an hour north of us. The thought of him living alone, at eighty-two and with a pre-existing condition of COPD, worried me.
As soon as I suggested he come live with us, and he agreed, panic set in. My palms felt sweaty as I prepared the guest room for him. Would I continue to walk on eggshells in his presence? How would I handle it if he lost his temper if I made a wrong move? I was fifty-five years old and still afraid of my father.
My relationship with my father has always been complicated. Tragedy hit two days after my second birthday, on October 14, 1966. My family drove along in a small pickup truck on an old highway on the outskirts of our small town in Utah. We all sat in the front seat: my father was twenty-nine at the time, and my mom, Sandy, was twenty-five and expecting her fourth child. My older brother Mike was five, and my sister Shanna was three. We came to a triple set of train tracks. My father stopped at the flashing lights and waited for the train to pass. As it did, my father proceeded across the tracks, not realizing that another train was approaching from the opposite direction. It struck our vehicle, flinging all of us into the atmosphere like confetti. The impact killed my mother, brother, and sister instantly. My father lay unconscious with a small break in his neck. I was told that I had only a scratch on my toe and wandered amongst the bodies until a police officer appeared and held me until the ambulance arrived.
After being released from the hospital several weeks later, my father retrieved me from my uncle’s house and took me to Logan, Utah, where we lived together while he attended Utah State University. Nine months after the accident my father married my stepmother, and my two half-brothers followed. Eventually he earned a master’s degree in special education and became a schoolteacher, a job that did not suit his temperament.
Throughout my early childhood I both adored and feared my father. His alcoholism and internal rage overshadowed everything in our lives and made life unbearable. By the time I was eight years old he was drinking around the clock and always had a bottle of vodka underneath the driver’s seat of the car so he could take swigs throughout the day in between classes. This led to him getting fired so often that we moved eleven times during my childhood.
At home, my stepmother and brothers and I hopped-to at his constant orders to get him this or that. “Get me my shoes…no, not those shoes, goddamnit!” He was prone to vicious, angry outbursts, like the time he threw his plate of food at the wall. “I can’t eat this shit!” His favorite line was, “God-damn-son-of-a-bitch-cock-sucker!” I cowered under his 6’5” frame and raised fists—the beatings were sporadic, but the verbal abuse occurred almost daily. I asked him once why he hit me and he said, “Because that’s the only language you understand!”
When I was twelve, we moved to Cokeville, Wyoming, population 500.
I discovered that the only thing for kids to do there was to catch crawdads in the “crick.” I spent most of my time alone in my room, lying on my bed, fantasizing about a life I knew I couldn’t have—a life far away from the small towns in Wyoming, with two loving and sober parents.
Something else was happening at the same time: puberty. The only thing in my room besides my bed was a full-length mirror—which, as it turned out, was all I needed to entertain myself. One day, while getting undressed for bed, I glanced in the mirror and saw someone I didn’t entirely recognize. Curves and breasts were emerging. Mesmerized, I spent hours posing in various positions, admiring my new body. I somehow knew that my life would never be the same. Boys began to take notice, especially older ones.
One evening, just after my thirteenth birthday, I ran into three high school boys near the school. They were going to one of the boy’s houses while his parents were out, and they invited me to join them. I jumped at the chance. I was bored and starved for some excitement. The chance to spend time with older boys who seemed interested in me drew me like water to a drain. Once at the house, one of the boys who paid particular attention to me led me into the master bedroom. We sat on the edge of the bed and he kissed me. I had never been with a boy before in this way and as we made out my body felt things it had never felt before. I was transported into another dimension of reality as the boy pushed his tongue into my mouth and his hands wandered across my breasts. My body felt like it was on fire, my head tingled.
Suddenly I heard a banging sound and rustling outside the door of the bedroom. One of the other boys knocked. “Laurie’s dad is here!” The boy and I shot up off the bed and I darted out of the bedroom and into the bathroom in the hallway. My heart was racing and the blissful feeling I felt just minutes before turned into terror. I locked the door, and crouched down on the floor, shaking. I hoped the boys would lie and tell him I wasn’t there, but in a few seconds I heard one of the boys approach the bathroom door. His voice was shaking. “Laurie, your dad’s here…you have to go with him.” All of the boys knew my father because he was a teacher and basketball coach at the school. I could tell they were as terrified of him as I was.
In the car my father reached under the seat for his pint of vodka. He pulled the bottle out and took a long swig. I sat in the passenger seat, frozen. He started the car. As we drove the couple of blocks home, he grabbed me by my hair and banged my head against the window. “What in the hell were you doing with those boys?” he yelled. As soon as we pulled into our driveway and came to a stop, I jumped out of the car and ran into the house. My stepmother, Kris, was in the living room and saw us through the window. She could see that I was crying. I ran into my bedroom and slammed the door shut but within minutes Dad and Kris came in.
My father looked at me and saw something on my neck—it was a hickey. His eyes widened and his mouth twisted. The rage in his eyes terrified me. He hit me several times, knocking me to the floor. “What in the hell did you do?” He knelt down beside me, calling my stepmother to help him hold me down. She ran over to us, knelt and pinned my shoulders to the floor.
My father ripped off my pants, and then my underwear. I thrashed, screamed, kicked.
Terrified and confused I yelled “Why are you doing this?”
They didn’t answer. I felt like I was being raped by my parents. I had no idea why this was happening. My newly developed body was completely exposed to my father. I cringed with shame. Once he accomplished his goal and had my underwear in his hands, he stood up and examined them. I was in shock, confused, mortified. Tears streamed down my face. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my legs in an attempt to cover myself. My stepmother stood by, waiting for cues from my dad.
“What are you doing?!”
My father looked up from my underwear. “I wanted to see if you were wet—to see if you had sex with that boy.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I wracked my brain for meaning, but all that surfaced were more questions. What does being “wet” mean and what does that have to do with having sex? At thirteen, these things were completely unknown to me. My parents barely spoke to me, let alone had discussions about sex. A look of disgust took hold of my father’s face and he tossed the underwear at me—they hit my cheek, then landed on the floor beside me.
“Come on, let’s go,” he said to my stepmother.
They left my room and went upstairs, leaving me in shock. I put on some fresh underwear and jeans, threw myself on my bed and cried deep, heaving cries for the rest of the night. I hated my father and couldn’t wait to get older and get away from him. I would never forgive him for this. No one ever came back to my room to talk to me, and it was never brought up again.
Within weeks my father was fired from his teaching job for drinking while at work. This thrilled me. I had become known as the “slut” of the tiny school, despite still being a virgin and couldn’t wait to get out of that fishbowl and start over somewhere new. I hoped and prayed it would be a larger town where I could possibly blend in a little more.
My wish came true. We moved to Ogden, Utah, population 50,000. It wasn’t a large city, but it was a far cry from puny towns like Thermopolis, Sundance, and Cokeville, Wyoming. The town actually had a boulevard instead of a dinky main street. I enrolled in junior high and quickly fell in with the stoners. Finally, I found a place where I could fit in. I became a rebellious teenager, staying out all hours and drinking to oblivion. One night I got home particularly late, against my father’s orders, and was met at the door by him. His rage was palpable, and I braced myself. What followed was the worst beating I ever received from my father. He hit me several times and I fell to the floor. He kicked me in the stomach as I writhed.
“You…dirty bitch,” he growled, towering over me.
At some point my stepmother said, “That’s enough, Tony.”
“I hate you!” I screamed as I ran downstairs to my room. Crying, I threw some clothes in a duffel bag, along with my hot curlers and makeup and walked out the downstairs door. My stomach hurt and I felt sick, but a huge sense of relief came over me once I rounded the corner and knew I was free. I was fourteen and officially a runaway.
I found places to stay. My favorite was with a thirty-five-year nightclub owner named Darrell. He was smooth with the ladies and had a flamboyant personality. He took me in and made me feel special. His nightclub, called the Swamp Root, was the hottest club in town, and everyone wanted to be around Darrell. I thought I had arrived. And because I looked so much older than my age I was able to hang out with him in his club and then go with him to other bars in town. I quickly became a regular in these bars, surrounded by older men who were thrilled to buy drinks for a pretty, nubile girl who liked to drink as much as they did and was game for anything. It was exciting to live on my own, like an adult.
The next few years became a series of blackouts and one-night stands. I was rudderless, except for the fact that in these bars I became a skilled pool player and began playing for money to help support myself. I had no source of income at the time and although Darrell bought me drinks and fed me when I was with him, he never gave me money. Pool became a way for me to not only support myself, but it gave me a purpose and helped to build up my oh-so-low self-esteem. Sometimes a crowd would gather around the table and I’d hear people whisper about how good I was, as I stuffed my winnings into my tight jeans’ pockets. My days and nights became about finding money games at the various bars around Ogden. But occasionally I would find myself in juvenile detention, for being caught shoplifting, or being drunk in public and a runaway. I would then be assigned a social worker and placed in several different foster homes. I stayed at these homes for brief periods because I always talked my father into rescuing me from them. I hated not having my freedom. Each time, I tried to live with him again, but it wasn’t the rescue I needed. My father took me into a new horror.
My stepmother left my father when I ran away the first time and took my two brothers back to her hometown to be near her parents. I wondered what took her so long to leave. For almost fourteen years she had endured my father’s abuse and alcoholism. Once she and the boys were gone, I was left to take on the role of caretaker of my father, who was by then glued to his vodka bottle, shaking like Jell-O in the morning until the clear liquid surged through his body. He had been fired from his teaching job in Ogden within a matter of weeks, for drinking on the job and throwing a stapler at a student.
My life became a nightmare of picking up my drunken father up from the floor, cleaning up after him, and trying to get him to eat something so he wouldn’t die of malnutrition. He was usually too sick to eat, so he drank raw eggs and milk to get some nutrients into his system. His delirious cries and drunken rants filled the dingy basement apartment we lived in at the time, keeping me up all hours of the night. My drinking escalated as well, and we found ourselves drinking together. He had finally given up on trying to control me, and we both surrendered to our new normal.
When I was nineteen and my father was forty-five, the miraculous happened: he got sober. He had tried countless timesbut had always failed. This time was different because he had finally hit a bottom. If he wanted to stay alive, he knew he had to quit. I saw a change in him—he was less angry and claimed to have had a spiritual awakening. He was still prone to angry outbursts occasionally, but he did the best he could to overcome his demons and to make amends with me and my brothers.
Two years later, at twenty-one and against all odds, I hit my own bottom. I was tired of being drunk and exploited by older men and exhausted from being in survival mode, looking for places to stay and struggling to make enough money to support myself. I knew that drinking to oblivion (I had already accumulated two DUI’s by the time I was nineteen) and spending most of my waking hours in smokey bars hustling pool was not a sustainable lifestyle for me and I wanted more for myself. My father’s newfound sobriety inspired me to do the same. I quit drinking and got my G.E.D.. I stopped playing pool in bars, but I entered a national pool tournament in Las Vegas at the MGM Hotel and took second place. I won fourteen hundred dollars. This gave me the money I needed to make a change. I moved to California and got a job as a receptionist at an escrow company. I eventually married a loving, stable man who was the complete opposite of my father. Michael was patient and never critical of me. We bought a beautiful home in a gated community. I went to college and graduate school, starting with a G.E.D. and coming out with a Ph.D. I published two books. On the outside, I appeared to have it all. And that was precisely my plan. I figured if I crafted a polished persona, I could pass myself off as “normal” and successful. I would reinvent myself from the outside in. If I created the right image, my childhood would go away.
That’s not what happened. I had made great strides in creating that shiny, new life for myself throughout my twenties and thirties, yet internally I struggled with depression, anxiety, and ultimately, addiction again. I’d spiral down, then pick myself up in a vicious cycle of highs and lows. Aside from my husband and a couple of close friends, no one knew what was going on with me.
I appeared to have it all.
I knew my problems weren’t situational; they were internal. It was my damned past, old tapes telling me that I was worthless, irreparably damaged, doomed. For many years I possessed a victim mentality—all of my problems were not of my own making, but of my father’s. With the help of a skilled therapist I began to delve into my childhood. I attended workshops on healing your past and read countless self-help books. I attended twelve-step meetings and shared parts of my story, releasing layers of tension and anxiety that seemed embedded in my flesh.
I realized that blaming my father for all of my problems was not serving me and I had to take responsibility for my own life. This change was slow and painful. Childhood memories and beliefs about myself that my father had instilled in me as a child often overshadowed the self-esteem I was trying so hard to develop. My relationship with my father improved slowly, but we continued to have problems communicating with each other. He was in California now too, and though he was sober, he was still prone to occasional angry outbursts, and he couldn’t seem to help but continue to be critical of me. Even as an adult, in my thirties and forties, I would end up in tears after having a conversation with him. I still felt myself trying to avoid making him angry. Old wounds were easily triggered, I would react, arguments erupted.
A week before the pandemic hit I attended a week-long retreat called “The Hoffman Process,” held by the Hoffman Institute and advertised as a “Seven-day soul-searching, healing retreat of transformation and development for people who feel stuck in one or more important areas of their lives.” It’s an experiential process designed to help you identify negative beliefs that were unconsciously instilled as a child. Two of the outcomes they promised were “making peace with your past”, and “emotional healing and forgiveness.” With a sigh, I signed up. As I filled out the online forms, I thought, I can’t believe I’m still working on this shit.
The retreat was held near St. Helena, California on a beautiful 45-acre property at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains surrounded by majestic redwoods and a crystal-clear stream. Approximately thirty people showed up, their expressions apprehensive. Cell phones were strictly prohibited (there was no cell signal or internet access anyway).
For the first few days, I tried my best to get into it. I beat a pillow and screamed at it like it was my father. “I hate you, you mother-fucker! You ruined my life!” I hated every minute of that particular exercise and thought it was a waste of time, partly because I didn’t believe that I still felt that way about my father. Counselors walking around among the participants encouraged us to keep going. On day five, after what seemed like hours of battering the pillow, I heard myself scream, “You killed my mother!” The floodgates opened and I cried huge tears that soaked the poor, smashed pillow. I was stunned. Where did that come from? This wasn’t a belief I remembered having. It scared me, but it also opened a dam that allowed years of pain to flow through. I felt a huge release when the exercise ended.
On day six the counselor in charge had us close our eyes and imagine what our parents were like as children and what they went through. Emotional music played in the background to create a nostalgic feeling. I immediately saw my father as an eight-year-old boy. It was the year his mother was put in the state mental hospital and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Over the course of several months during my father’s childhood, she was taken there many times and given shock treatments that made her seem as if she were far away in another world. I had never thought of what it might have been like for my father, living without his mother, even when she was at home, not receiving the nurturance he needed. I had never thought of my father in this light before. Along with the others there, I wailed through the entire exercise. That experience and others helped me to reframe my relationship with my father and see him as the man he was trying to be and not the abusive drunk he had been. I had to let go of the past and my resentments and find more compassion for what my father had been through in his life.
By the end of the week, we all looked ten years younger. We called it the “Hoffman Facelift.” With expert guidance, we had traveled from the depths of despair to a place of enlightenment and elation. We packed our bags and headed back into the real world, only to discover that the world was coming to an end. A global pandemic, Covid-19, had hit, and people were locked up in their homes in an attempt to slow the spread of it. It was as if I had been living in a time warp and while I was gone, all hell broke loose.
I got to the airport, a ghost town with a few people wandering around wearing masks over their noses and mouths. It felt strange and spooky. I thought of my father, alone in his trailer. I called him as soon as I got home and suggested he come stay with us for a while. He arrived the next day.
My father and I quickly established a routine. My husband worked from home and was extremely busy, which gave me plenty of time to focus on my father. An early riser, I made my father’s tea and poured it into his large Thermos, then placed it next to his bed in the guest room while he was still sleeping. This saved him the arduous trip to the kitchen in our sprawling home. It warmed my heart to see his face light up when he said, “I love waking up to my tea.” His days were mostly spent in his room, watching movies, playing solitaire, composing emails, reading, napping, and watching YouTube videos to pass the time. I checked on him frequently. He preferred to eat his meals in his room watching old westerns on Netflix. I cooked comfort food I knew he would enjoy—stuffed bell peppers, meatloaf with mashed potatoes, chicken curry, and his favorite, Shepherd’s Pie. Every night he looked forward to his favorite butter pecan ice cream. When I retrieved the dishes, I’d ask, “Do you need anything, Dad?” I washed his clothes, ran his bath water, emptied his urine bottles, and even cut his toenails (luckily, with only one leg, there were only 5!). I was still the little girl desperately trying to get my father’s approval; that was not lost on me. Those things never really change. My deep need to connect with my father, to gain his attention, love, and acceptance were still alive and well.
Compliments were rare from my father, and when they occurred, they washed over me like a soothing ray of sunshine. Over the next several weeks I heard many things that were foreign to me but that filled me up. One night he said, “I want you to know, I really appreciate all that you’re doing for me. I’ve never been treated this well before.” Another day, he told me he was impressed with the life I built for myself. My restrained, reserved father was becoming verbally demonstrative in a positive way and I loved it.
Partly due to his age, and also because he was drunk most of the time, my father remembers very little of my childhood and the horrible things that happened. I have longed to have him understand what it was like for me, how the devastating events of my childhood affected my life as an adult. I wanted him to know the whole story. And I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t to punish him and make him feel guilty; I had given that up. I wanted a witness, and an acknowledgment of just how bad it was, something he had never really admitted. I didn’t want to have to carry these memories inside me without anyone really understanding what I experienced, especially someone who was there at the time. When he was critical of me as an adult, telling me that I was self-centered and overly sensitive, I wished I could show him a video of my childhood. I wanted him to see it and weep, and then put his arms around me and tell me how sorry he was that I went through all of that. But I never got the opportunity to share the details of what happened, nor would I have gotten the response I wanted. Understandably, my father hated rehashing the past. The last thing he wanted was to be reminded of, or made aware of, were his mistakes. At first we avoided any deep conversations or heart-to-hearts, preferring to keep things light and avoid any touchy topics. I didn’t want to ruin what appeared to be a good start of our time together under one roof.
One early morning during his stay I slipped into my father’s room while he was still sleeping. His prosthetic leg was propped up against the chair, a shadowy figure symbolizing just one of the many things he had lost over the years. I watched him for a moment. I thought about all he had been through—his painful childhood, the train accident that took his pregnant wife and two small children, his struggle with alcoholism. A feeling of love and compassion washed over me. I could tell he was making a real effort to be patient and grateful, and I knew that my caring for him had played a major role in the process. All of my fears about him staying with us dissipated because since he arrived at our home there hadn’t been one negative word from him. He had somehow lost his motivation to criticize me. It’s hard to criticize someone who is serving you.
Because things were going so smoothly between my father and me, this opened the door for us to occasionally reminisce about the past. One day in June, we sat in the winged-back chairs in his room, eating smoked oysters, crackers and cheese. I shared my first memory with him.
I was three, a year after the train accident. A nightmare jolted me out of my sleep in the middle of the night. The head of a menacing wolf with large fangs came toward my face at an increasingly faster speed until it was right up to my face. I woke up and screamed. Within minutes my stepmother appeared and knelt by my bed. She asked if I’d had a bad dream. I remember the crushing feeling I had when I realized it was she who had come to me, not my father.
“I wanted you to be the one to come to my room and put your arms around me and comfort me,” I said. “But it never was you.”
I reined in my tears, expecting him to be annoyed by my telling this story, or to dismiss it as something I should get over, as he had always done when old memories resurfaced. Add to that, my father doesn’t like seeing women get emotional. His eyes remained dry, but I saw a slight pain in them.
“I’m so sorry, Laurie. I wish I could have been there for you.”
My father had apologized to me before, something along the lines of “I’m sorry I was such a terrible father.” But this apology felt different. There was genuineness in his tone, and there was the “so” before the “sorry”—whatever it was, I felt it in the depths of my soul. I knew he truly meant it. Being able to share a specific memory with him and getting that reaction felt healing.
“It’s okay, Dad. I know you did the best you could,” I replied, and I meant it.
That was enough for one day. I picked up the empty plates, got up and said good night.
“Love ya, kid,” he said, as I shut the door behind me.
Sometimes we have to reinvent our relationship with a parent, or at least accept a new version of it. Sometimes we have to settle for what we can get and lower our expectations. Sometimes miracles happen and relationships are healed. In some cases, estrangement seems to be the only option. This can feel like a death in the family. I was glad that my father and I kept trying. Layer by layer we were making progress. I realized it was never too late to make strides.
How do we forgive the unforgivable? How do we reconcile devastating childhood events that shape who we are and affect us for the rest of our lives? We are told “It’s in the past, you’re an adult now” and to “get over it”. Hard as we may try, doing this isn’t so easy. For me, forgiveness came in layers over the course of several decades. All of the work I did on myself helped tremendously in various ways along the path of my personal development, but in the end, it seemed that time was the key factor in my being able to let go of resentments toward my father. There was no forcing it; there was only being open to it. There was no waking up one day and saying, “I’ve decided to forgive my father.” It wasn’t a mental exercise; it was an internal experience that evolved without my really even noticing it, like the roses in my garden that unfold imperceptibly until one day I notice the full bloom and witness the beauty of it without having perceived the process happening.
On the last day of his stay with us, I entered my father’s room and opened the curtains. The first bloom of the roses outside in the garden was about to occur, their small buds ready to unfold as if on cue. My father was propped up on his side in bed, playing a game of solitaire.
“Dad would have loved these roses,” he said. My grandfather had prize-winning roses when he was alive. I asked Dad what he wanted for breakfast.
“How about pancakes?” There was an impish smile on his face.
“Sure,” I replied.
As I approached the door, he said, “We’ve come a long way, Laurie.”
Laurie Gelfand is the author of: “Love Before Sex: How to Establish Love and Commitment Before Bringing Sex Into the Relationship” and “The Big Talk: Talking to Your Kids About Sex and Dating.” She worked as the family therapist for an alcohol and drug treatment facility in southern California, and is now writing full time. She is currently working on a memoir about her early childhood and teen years. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two dogs.